Turkey accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of outright murder of innocent civilians during Tuesday’s chemical attack by regime forces against rebel enclaves in northern Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments Wednesday reflected the overall international outrage over the chemical strike that left over 70 civilians dead, including 11 children, in the rebel-held province of Idlib.
But Ankara’s harsh rhetoric could also stoke simmering regional rivalries with Damascus, as Mr. Assad looks to exert control over Syrian territory along the Turkish border being held by Erdogan’s troops.
“Hey murderer Assad, how are you going to escape from their curse?” the Turkish president said Wednesday during a political rally in western Turkey, Agence France-Presse reported.
“Hey, the world that remains silent, the United Nations that remains silent. How will you be brought to account for this?” railed Mr. Erdogan, in his first public comments on the chemical attack.
Noting that some of the survivors from Tuesday’s attack were evacuated to Turkey’s southern Hatay Province for treatment, Mr. Ergodan said his condemnation of Mr. Assad’s actions transcended political or ethnic ties on both sides of the border.
The wounded and dead in northern Syria “became martyrs due to chemical weapons” delivered by the Assad regime, he told the crowd of supporters during the rally in Bursa in western Turkey. “We are doing our best but that’s not enough. They are our kids, our brothers,” he added.
Wednesday’s rally was geared to gin up support for Turkey’s upcoming political referendum vote, one that would greatly expand Mr. Ergodan’s executive powers in the country.
Ankara’s recently completed offensive against the Islamic State in northern Syria, dubbed Euphrates Shield, also was a significant show of military strength ahead of the referendum vote.
Ankara, incensed that U.S.-led coalition forces opted to back the coalition of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, to battle the Islamic State, launched the operation in August. American commanders remain engaged with their Turkish counterparts over their potential role in the eventual assault on Raqqa.
But tensions between Damascus and Ankara have escalates since the regime’s victory in the rebel stronghold of Aleppo earlier this year. Backed by a blistering air campaign by Russian warplanes, government troops overran the city and handed Mr. Assad his biggest victory in the six-year civil war.
Since then, Mr. Assad’s forces, emboldened by the Aleppo victory, took a larger and more aggressive role in the fight against Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL. As part of that effort, Syrian forces began pressing into Turkish-held territories taken from the Islamic State near northern Syrian cities of al Bab and Manbij beginning last month.